Monument record MCC2831 - Roman theatre, Gosbecks, Colchester
|Grid reference||Centred TL 96807 22311 (86m by 58m)|
|Civil Parish||STANWAY, COLCHESTER, ESSEX|
Type and Period (1)
The Roman theatre at Gosbecks is situated c.3.6km south-west of the colonia at Colchester, on a small promontory between the Roman river and a lesser tributary. It lies on the eastern edge of a thirty-acre area which was covered in Roman times by numerous buildings including a possible bath-building, the large Gosbecks temple (MCC2849) standing within its own temenos. The entire area falls into a class of rural site widespread in Roman Gaul where large temples are associated with theatre, mansio and bath-buildings, but where private houses and town walls are absent.<1><2><3>
As the Gosbecks theatre lies on flat ground, the cavea had to be artificially built up and is still clearly visible today as a roughly d-shaped mound (flat end facing south), c.82m wide, 1.5m high, with marked depressions over the orchestra and entrance’.
The Rev. Henry Jenkins first mentioned this mound in his record of the site, written in 1847, and his works included digging into its western edge. The mound was not identified as a theatre until M.R. Hull’s trial excavations in 1948-50, which focused on the edges of the mound. Hull was able to confirm that a south-facing theatre, built partly from masonry, existed on the site but he was unable to establish any details of the plan of the orchestra or stage.<1><5>
A more detailed investigation of the theatre took place in 1967. Excavations directed by B.R.K. Dunnett provided a plan of the site and a basic understanding of its construction. In its earliest phase, the plan of the theatre was simple, consisting of a semi-circular timber cavea with a single northern entrance, a quite large orchestra and a rectangular timber stage. Traces of this structure were uncovered in both the 1948 and 1967 excavations, beneath and seemingly pre-dating the later cavea.<2>
Excavation of the Roman Theatre at Gosbecks, 1967.
The earliest activity identified at the site was four pre-Roman pits, cut into the natural gravel subsoil. No other structures pre-dating the theatre were found, although there were several pieces of Iron Age pottery found, comparable to that found in Pit 1. This cannot be considered as further evidence of occupation at the actual theatre site however, as the construction of the mound must have caused a large amount of turf to be gathered over a very wide area, and potentially pottery along with it from the surrounding area. Generally, the pottery finds were very fragmentary and cannot be taken as evidence of a concentration of occupation in the area.
In its earliest phase, the plan of the theatre was simple, consisting of a semi-circular timber cavea with a single northern entrance, a quite large orchestra and a rectangular timber stage. Traces of this structure were uncovered in both the 1948 and 1967 excavations, beneath and seemingly pre-dating the later cavea. Little dating evidence for this phase was uncovered; an early second century flagon rim provides a terminus post quem of c.AD 100. This first phase theatre is not though to have stood for long, the fact that none of the timbers appear to have been renewed indicates a life span of approximately 25 years. Also, there seems to have been little time between the end of the Phase 1 timber building and the construction of the masonry theatre, the date of which finds indicate to be c.AD 150-200.
The second phase building on the site is that which the artificial cavea is associated with, a part-masonry structure where an outer stone shell surrounded a turf and timber interior. The construction of the cavea in the absence of a quarry, must have required a vast area of be stripped of turf, without causing any noticeable depressions locally. A calculation of the area required for stripping results in an area of 15 acres, which considers the highest point of the mound to be 10ft., sloping at an angle of 10 degrees to the orchestra wall. Deep ploughing and erosion has destroyed all traces of seating arrangements, which were probably timber or stepped turf. The theatre appears to have lasted until the mid 3rd century and it has been estimated the size of this cavea could have accommodated c.5000 spectators, which would have made it the largest of its kind in Britain.
The cavea wall was, in most places, entirely robbed out, although in a couple of instances, the lowest courses of the foundations survived. Also, a small section of the superstructure survived on the east side of the entrance. The composition of the above ground masonry was Kentish ragstone and a pale mortar, faced with high-quality ashlar. The foundations, where they exist, were trench-built of alternate layers of septaria, and hard yellow mortar. The width of the wall above ground level was 2ft. 4in., with the foundations being dug 2ft.-2ft. 6in. below the contemporary ground surface in most places. The external wall face had small buttresses or pilaster bases, occurring at 9ft. intervals, which had generally been robbed out completely. The small size of these features suggests they may have acted as the bases for decorative pilasters or engaged half-columns, rather than practical buttresses.
At two points in the cavea wall, it was noted that gaps in the wall seemed to suggest there were two staircases providing access to the rear seats of the auditorium. The position of the northern entrance could be ascertained from a marked depression in the mound. The stage was increased in size substantially in this later stage, measuring a width of 70ft. and a depth of 3 ft.
As with the earlier phase, dating evidence for the later phase was also very sparse, the only useful dateable items being constructional deposits. Finds of mid to late second century pottery and a coin of Hadrian provide a date after which the construction must have taken place. The building did not appear to have stood for much longer than 50 years, although there were some instances where timber uprights had been renewed. The theatre appeared to have been carefully demolished after its abandonment, the orchestra and stage were covered with weathered turf which seems to have come from the cavea. In the entrance, this turf had been laid directly on the latest entrance floor, there being no sign of any dirt having accumulated on the gravel surface prior to the turf being laid. The demolition of the cavea wall and entrance would likely have been due to the value of the Kentish ragstone, a material much superior to local septaria.
The Gosbecks Theatre does not fall into either of the two broad types of truly Roman and Romano-Celtic theatres, the stage being simple and the orchestra would not have been used for the performances sometimes carried out in the ‘cock-pit’ type orchestra, e.g. ritual observance, dancing or declamation. Dunnett states that the Gosbecks theatre is, ‘clearly a religious building designed to house a congregation to witness primarily religious rites, and as a meeting place for pilgrims to the cult centre.’ Gosbecks falls into the class of rural sacred sites well known from Gaul, studies of which have noted that they usually originate on pre-Roman sacred sites important enough to attract a large number of worshippers throughout the Roman period, a fact which accounts for the large number of Roman buildings, such as bath-buildings that may surround the temple and temenos. There is enough evidence to support the view that Gosbecks was a site of special significance in pre-Roman Camulodunum, which would explain its continued development in the Roman period.
‘In summary it is suggested that the Gosbecks theatre was used as a place of assembly at times of festivals associated with the neighbouring temple. In view of the presence at Gosbecks of a purely timber-built theatre it is possible that further, so far unsuspected, timber-built theatres may be found in the future at other religious sites. It should be remembered that the only trace of the theatre, visible even from the air, belonged to the Phase 2 turf and masonry superstructure.’<1>
In 1977a small excavation was undertaken to assess plough damage on the site. This encountered turf blocks from the base of the cavea measuring 0.10-0.15m in thickness.<3>
The theatre was enclosed by its own irregular hexagonal-shaped precinct, c.4.0ha. in area, traced by cropmarks. In 2001 the precinct wall was excavated in two places.<4>
The Monument is part of the Scheduled Monument Gosbecks Iron Age and Romano-British site, List Number 1002180:
- <1> SCC906 Article in serial: Dunnett, Rosalind. 1971. The excavation of the Roman theatre at Gosbecks. Britannia, Vol. 2 (1971), pp. 27-47. pp.27-47.
- <2> SCC905 Unpublished document: Colchester Borough Council, Museum Service. 1999. Gosbecks Archaeological Park - Research Framework. p.3.
- <3> SCC110 Serial: Hawkes, Christopher, F. C. & Crummy, Philip. 1995. CAR 11: Camulodunum II. 11. p.103.
- <4> SCC72824 Monograph: Gascoyne, Adrian and Radford, David. 2013. Colchester. Fortress of the War God. An Archaeological Assessment. p.116.
- <5> SCC48 Monograph: Hull, M. Rex. 1958. Roman Colchester: Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. No. XX. pp.267-269.
Related Monuments/Buildings (2)
Related Events/Activities (3)
- Event - Intervention: Excavation of Gosbecks Theatre, Gosbacks Farm, Colchester, 1967 (Ref: ECC2734) (ECC2734)
- Event - Survey: Geophysical survey at Gosbecks Farm, Colchester, 2008 (Ref: ECC2832) (ECC2832)
- Event - Intervention: Rev. Henry Jenkins's excavation at Gosbecks Farm, Colchester, 1842 (Ref: ECC2729) (ECC2729)
Record last edited
Nov 11 2016 12:20PM